Thursday, 18 November 2010

Hymn To Life by Lou Andreas-Salomé

Surely, a friend loves a friend the way
That I love you, enigmatic life —
Whether I rejoiced or wept with you,
Whether you gave me joy or pain.

I love you with all your harms;
And if you must destroy me,
I wrest myself from your arms,
As a friend tears himself away from a friend’s breast.

I embrace you with all my strength!
Let all your flames ignite me,
Let me in the ardor of the struggle
Probe your enigma ever deeper.

To live and think millennia!
Enclose me now in both your arms:
If you have no more joy to give me —
Well then—there still remains your pain.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Aristotle, Heidegger, and the for-the-sake-of-which


In Aristotle, ethics begins with a question: how should I live my life? This question is the most fundamental question, the most fundamental problem. Only through a for-the-sake-of-which can action make sense. To bring substance out of this statement, Julie Annas gives the example of playing tennis, an action which does not make sense in itself but only in reference to a for-the-sake-of. The particular for-the-sake-of against which the act of playing tennis makes sense could be that she wishes to be fit, or that perhaps she desires to become a professional tennis player.

The point is that actions by themselves are devoid of meaning without a nexus of significance in which they take place. This is why Aristotle begins with taking a stand on oneself, and not with the solution of what to do when making particular choices. By asking what kind of life you ought to live, you are not simply asking a question, but framing the region of being in which your questions and actions are possible at all. Having a for-the-sake-of-which is therefore a matter of the utmost significance for human life, which implies that ethics cannot even possibly begin with the solution of particular problems, as those problems would not even be problems without first taking a stand on yourself!

If this claim seems odd consider the following; would it be a problem for you as to how best to throw up a wall if you were not a carpenter? Would it be a problem for you as to how to change nappies if you had no intention of becoming a parent? Would you spend your days pondering wave-particle duality had you not some interest in the physical world? In order for us to go out and discover things about the world we live in, we must first have a motivating principle, “how should I live my life?”

As Heidegger points out though, a for-the-sake-of-which need not be a stand you have rationally taken upon yourself. To borrow the examples Hubert Dreyfus gives, you may assume being a “mummy’s boy” or being an older brother, you did not thematically decide to take that stand on how you should live your life, you were just socialised into them. So there is a distinction between the two thinkers in that Aristotle thinks ethics begins with a rational decision you make about yourself, whereas Heidegger would perhaps say that the stand you take on yourself does not necessarily have to be rationally or even consciously assumed.

The difficulty with Aristotle’s account is that he is absolutely correct in saying that we must take a stand on ourselves in order for our actions to make sense. But Aristotle thinks that only rational choices are proper actions. This is a difficult claim. Aristotle is assuming that for an action to make sense we must be consciously aware of the ends towards-which we aim. But as Dreyfus points out, we may have any towards-which (getting in the car, driving to the destination, parking next to his building, getting out of the car, heading up to his office etc.) of which we are not explicitly aware. Indeed he goes as far as to say that our conscious mind can be focused on something completely different and we may find we have arrived at our destination, surprised that we’re here already.

So a towards-which (which only makes sense against a for-the-sake-of-which, so in this case Dreyfus says that the reasons why he did all of those things was ultimately related to his being a teacher) does not have to be goal orientated. In John Searle’s account of action, which is broadly analogous to Aristotle’s in this case, actions must be motivated by an intention, and then carried out as an intention in action. Having an intention in Searle’s sense implies having a goal in mind – but as we will find soon enough if we go about our daily dealings, we seldom have these goals in mind. A towards-which, therefore, isn’t an explicit, conscious goal, but rather a way to satisfy an ultimate for-the-sake-of-which (which as we’ve seen, also need not be consciously assumed).

There are also differences in how the two deal with what it is which determines a for-the-sake-of-which, and thereby avoid infinite regress. Aristotle believes that there is a terminal good which we desire, a good which we desire in and of itself. As we desire the ultimate good in and of itself, we do not require any further qualification for assuming it as a for-the-sake-of-which. Heidegger’s account is much different. He believes that taking a stand on yourself does not fall into a linear infinite regress, but rather eventually comes up against nothingness. It is through an aversion to this nothingness that action is motivated, and as we experience ourselves without purpose we are thus motivated to discover a purpose (the discovery of which projects the truths your life will yield). This is what motivates the selection of a for-the-sake-of-which.


"If the purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world." - Arthur Schopenhauer (Essays and Aphorisms)

It seems absurd, even incomprehensible that our lives lead inexorably towards nothingness. Changes occur every day, things come into our lives, and things pass away from our lives. We toil endlessly, constantly striving to achieve ends, to achieve a happiness which always seems a step away. We wait weeks for a package to arrive, only to forget all about it, once opened, and begin desiring something new. We build, and build, and build, only for the ebb and flow of the universe to wipe it, and us, away.

Schopenhauer insists that human life is a mistake, and a worthless mistake at that. Schopenhauer sees pain as the positive, that which is tangible, and pleasure as mere release from pain. We notice only the place where the shoe pinches, but not the healthy whole body, he writes. Our lives are goal oriented, we must always have a purpose. Once a desire is satisfied, we must then create a further purpose.

If we neglect to find another goal then we experience boredom, the primary condition from which all activity essentially springs: the naked essence of existence, which is, alongside transiency, for Schopenhauer, the indication of life's worthlessness. When we are not seeking purposes which will ultimately disappoint us, we are "delivered over to boredom."

"What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome." - Friedrich Nietzsche (The Antichrist)

We might ask if Schopenhauer's estimations were entirely in order. Certainly we can all sympathise with his judgements with regards the futility of striving to possess happiness, and that boredom is that seedling from which activity ultimately springs. But must we agree with his insistence that this renders life as worthless?

I think not. The reasons underlying Schopenhauer's evaluations are, I believe, a misappropriation of where to create meaning in life. Becoming, not being, is the aim of life - life, as Nietzsche says, continually overcomes itself. We may understand boredom, and the feeling that our endeavours will be, in the long run, fruitless, but we do not have to take these as given.

But in spite of the conditions of nihility which face us, we are nonetheless free to assume an attitude towards life which does not want to rest in the stale satiety of satisfaction and its closely related cousin boredom. We want to find activity wherever we can, and not simply to crave ends in themselves, but rather the process by which we arrive at them. We can demand of ourselves that we never remain beings, but rather becomings - processes which never end, and are never satisfied.

The appropriate response to nihilism is, in my eyes, an absurd affirmation of life and a veneration of activity. If we are doomed to never be satisfied with the ends for which we aim, then we must apply value to the struggle we endure to get there. We must seek strife, not satiety. How-to's, not where-to's.

"As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die." - Martin Heidegger (Being and Time)

But have we solved the absurdity of life in the face of death? As Heidegger relates, it is our being-towards-death which makes us understand the finitude of our existence, the limits on our possibilities. It is the anxiety resulting from this understanding which inspires us to act and to create, in spite of death. Death ought not to be a negating force, but a force which demands us to live right now.

The dual forces of anxiety in the face of death and boredom in the face of emptiness paradoxically create fertile ground by which to cultivate a mode of being which affirms life, rather than rendering it as worthless. If we had not the prospect of life passing us by at every moment, and if we could be satisfied with emptiness, then what reason, besides the biological necessity of survival, could there be for action? For poetry, music, philosophy, film, or the novel?


But as we’ve gone over, in Heidegger’s view a for-the-sake-of-which need not be consciously motivated. Aristotle certainly didn’t overlook this, but his leaning towards conscious, rational thought as the only origin of genuine choice in turn urged him towards believing that the decision to act in a certain way in a certain situation would have be conscious if it was to be ethical. To elucidate this point further, we see in Plato it is not enough to simply do good deeds, but one must know why they do those deeds. There is a passage towards the end of Book III of The Republic which notes that merely legislating and regulating the course of a people’s actions is like trying to “cut the head off a hydra”, because you are not killing the beast itself but the phenomena which depend upon the beast (i.e. the actions and not the disposition to perform those actions). He proposes a system of education which will engender a sense of why an action is correct, and therefore minimal legislation would be required because people know what is right to do. As people all desire the good, they will therefore act on the basis of their understanding what good is.

But what is not considered is that a decision has already been made, when a for-the-sake-of-which was made possible (i.e. it “showed up”) it showed up for a reason. The world must be in a certain way, says Heidegger, in order for any for-the-sake-of-which to be disclosed. It would not be possible to be a carpenter, for example, if we were nomadic and lived on the sides of mountains. This is not to say that it is metaphysically or logically impossible, just that you would have to be instrumental in opening up the possibility of being a carpenter in a situation like that. That "opening up" would have to be occasioned in some way (it's not necessary to outline all the possible ways in which this could happen, suffice it to ask why would we change from a nomadic existence to a sheltered one?) otherwise it's not going to be a significant option. A genuine act does not, therefore, have to be conscious as it still has a for-the-sake-of-which – a stance on one’s existence has already taken place, indeed must have taken place in order for anything at all to be significant in the first place. The point is, a person can dwell within the world opened up for them by a for-the-sake-of-which, even one which they did not consciously assume, and still have an understanding of why it is that they must do the things they do.

Where the two views converge again is through Aristotle’s rationally taking a stand on oneself which is mirrored in Heidegger by the notion of living authentically. Being authentic for Heidegger is to thematically take a stand on yourself, to do what Aristotle is saying and ask how it is that you ought to live your life. It is here that true moral responsibility occurs, as you are taking an authentic stand on yourself and assuming responsibility for not just how you will deal with things in life, but what sorts of things you will even deal with. Authenticity and asking how you ought to live your life are, I suggest, broadly very similar.

Questions I do want to pursue are how does the chain of explanation terminate through an encounter with nothingness? Is what is revealed by the anxiety which overcomes us, the revelation of the nothing, related to the world in which we already dwell?[1] I wonder if the revelation perhaps informed our very first apprehension of tools and way of living. People get bored, cavemen don’t just want to beat things with sticks, eat, and run about. If this was sufficient we would never have obtained our way of being, which is fundamentally tool-based (no for-the-sake-of-which is possible without the relevant tools). While it is true that our apprehension of tools was at first necessarily driven by instinctual facticity (I need to eat) how we went about this is not so determined. This is a big question though, and I think it may take a long time to even frame it properly.

Now the world, of course, determines the range of possible for-the-sake-of-which’s, as does our own facticity. Simply put, you’re not going to become a Jedi Master if there is no force, and you’re not going to become the women’s gymnast champion if you have a penis. The generation of a for-the-sake-of-which is necessitated by our special kind of existence, but is not subjective in the sense that it is wholly informed by our “inner feelings”. As Marx said, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

Could it be that the factical world is what more or less determines the social consciousness which Marx is referring to? Almost certainly, but what else, if anything, is involved?

[1] The relevant account of moods is found in Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?”)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

We Do Know When We're Awake, But How?

The first premise of the "dream argument", namely that I don’t know that I’m not dreaming now, is tricky. When we dream, we can think that we’re not dreaming and that we're actually awake – but when we are awake and in our normal mode of comportment (i.e. not still in a dream state or under hypnosis) we don’t tend to doubt whether or not we’re dreaming.

The motivation for this premise is that in dreams we can’t tell, so therefore in reality we shouldn’t be able to tell either. If we start from the proposition that there is a difference between dreaming and reality, and we state that in dreams we are sometimes fooled into believing that we’re awake, then it seems to suggest that there is nothing to appeal to in our waking state to yield knowledge that we’re not still dreaming. The illusion of awakeness, presumably, can be generated by the brain.

But it remains a matter of empirical fact that we normally don’t think we’re still dreaming when we’re awake - indeed many of us would be willing to wager that we are actually awake when asked. Why do we have this sense of conviction? And why do we never think we’re still dreaming when we’re awake? I have a feeling there is something ontologically significant about this conviction, but that perhaps it is not graspable in the mode of propositional knowledge. I myself had an experience not too long ago where something quite strange occured in my own daily life. It caused me to ask "am I still dreaming?", which prompted me to become irrefutably aware of my own being awake. When pushed for reasons as to how I knew, I could not give any.

In any case, the point remains – it is only whilst dreaming that you can be fooled into thinking you are awake, so therefore there must be something about the dream state which enables you to be able to be fooled. Conversely, there must be something about the waking state which means that some change in circumstance along the lines of hypnosis would have to be invoked in order to alleviate the certainty of its effect. We will call, for the sake of simplicity, the condition (whatever it is) of certainty that you are awake when you are in fact awake: “X”. X therefore stands for the necessary and sufficient condition of our firm conviction that in our waking state we are awake.

When we are asleep, we lack condition X (as X is such that having it guarantees the truth and conviction that one is awake) and therefore it cannot be through X that we come to be fooled into believing we are awake when we are still in fact asleep. Now, we can come to believe in the truth of all kinds of illusions, but to mistake the entirety of your dream experience for reality is something quite spectacular! Why we become lucid in dreams is a contentious area, and I regret that I won’t be able to think about it too much here. Let it simply suffice to say that when we are in fact awake we never doubt that we are, ceteris paribus, and that we can infer from this that there is some truth-conducive condition in the waking state which resists even the doubts of the philosopher.

Now it might be objected that we’re simply helping ourselves to the conviction of the truth of the waking state, and that condition X is simply a condition which marks out the line between a dream state, and a state of dreaming within a dream. To expand this, we see that the idea rests on the objection that it remains possible that even our waking states are all dreams, and any dreams we do have are simply dreams inside of dreams.

If this objection is found to be significant, then our condition X is useless for guaranteeing awakeness as it (at best) helps us determine which level of dream-state we are in, but does not at all guarantee the truth of awakeness which we’re taking it to guarantee. However there is a looming semantic difficulty in all of this, so let’s make our terms absolutely clear. We will call A the “waking state” - so whether you believe it is a dream or not, let A stand for what we normally call the waking state. D will stand for the type of dream we have as a result of going to sleep following an exhausting A-state day. Lastly, let A* count for our hypothetical “real awakeness” – the kind of awakeness we would have should we awake from our A-state, if the A-state does turn out to be a dream after all.

So if being part of the A-state is necessary and sufficient for condition X, then as a result of this relation to the A-state it allows us to differentiate between being in it and being in the D-state if and only if we are in fact in the A-state. The answer it allows us to give when we’re asking “how do you know if you are not dreaming” is an answer to the question “how do you know that you are not in the D-state?” In which case, condition X allows us to discern between dreaming and being “awake” in so far as dreaming points to the D-state while being awake points to the A-state. However, if what you mean by dreaming is being in the A-state, the kind of state you go into when you fall asleep in the A*-state, then condition X will not be of very much help. However, positing the possibility of an A*-state is not just something we can do without requiring justification!

It’s a fact that our dreams refer to our waking state (so the content of D-states refers to and is in some sense dependent on content apprehended in the A-state) – so why is it that our A-state seems not to have any other referent? If we are inferring the possible existence of an A*-state from our experience of the relation of A-states and D-states, then why should we not require an analogous referential relationship of the sort observed between A-states and D-states in the proposed relationship between A*-states and A-states? Would we not carry in our A-state some residue of our A*-states? Would there not be some inter-referential content which we would causally depend upon experiences in our A*-state, as there is (fundamentally only) inter-referential content from our A-states when we are in a D-state? Does the absence of this referential condition not cast considerable doubt on the reasons for positing the existence of an A*-state?

I suggest that by positing the possibility of an A*-state through knowledge of the relation between A-states and D-states we also posit the necessity of the type of relation the A-state and D-state have. If this relation is not observed then inferring it by analogy will not work as the type of relation we’re proposing the A*-state and A-state to have is not analogous to the A-state and D-state. This is troublesome as it is precisely this relation which gives the notion of an A*-state its plausibility. So if the conditions which maintain between A-states and D-states are not observed between any hypothetical A*-state and the A-state then we’re not justified in believing in the existence of an A*-state by this analogous reasoning.

Being awake is not like dreaming. We experience things we’ve never experienced before in our waking state, we apprehend the content which our dream states must paint a picture with. Cutting right to the chase, we stand in an entirely different relation to beings when we’re awake. In dreaming we might experience some pretty wild stuff – like flying and other things we consider to be impossible. But everything in the dream is significant by virtue of its significance in the waking state – the world we experience when we dream is a manifestation of our implicit understanding of the world whilst being awake.

Consider how even our wildest fantasies cannot escape being a variation, or particular instance, of our fundamental grasp of being. Hubert Dreyfus makes a very similar point about how in science fiction we can only think up variations on our own world, and not something truly alien. Flying, for example, is a normative but not ontological impossibility and therefore does not count as something alien to our understanding. The things which the worlds of sci-fi are populated with are ontologically similar to our own (as in the same sorts of relationships maintain between the entities and roles of things in that fictional world than do in our own) but are nonetheless ontically distinct, as the things which fill in those roles are different. Transports become flying cars and spaceships, habitats become lunar colonies, and so on. The fundamental relationship to beings which maintains in the A-state is, I think, the clue to substantiating the "X" condition and rendering it thematically.